Imagining the Parish in Late Medieval England
Collective worship and the ritual life of the local parish mattered deeply to late medieval laypeople, and both loom large in contemporary visual and vernacular culture. The parish offered an important framework for Christians as they negotiated the relationship between individual, community, and God. And as a place where past, present, and future came together, the parish promised an ongoing relationship between the living and the dead, positioning the here and now of the local parish in the long trajectory of eschatological time. This book explores the ways in which Middle English literature engages the idea of lay spiritual community and the ideal of parochial worship. Rentz pairs readings of works such as PPl, Handlying Synne, and the Prick of Conscience with analysis of contemporary sermons, spiritual handbooks, and liturgical texts as well as a wide range of visual sources, including wall paintings and stained glass. Imagining the Parish examines how these texts and images locate the process of achieving salvation in the parish and in the work that parishioners undertook there together.
Chapter one begins at the font and in the churchyard and argues that late medieval sermonists turned to these two tropes as a way of shaping lay expectations about religious identity and ritual practice. This chapter explores the capacious concept of kynde in PPl as a staging ground for the performance and renewal of parochial identity. Chapter two investigates late medieval penitential practice as a fundamentally parochial and collective enterprise. The chapter considers the relationship between liturgy and literature and examines the ways that texts such as Handlyng Synne and PPl attend to the power of parochial space as a physical setting for confession and penance. The chapter ends with a discussion of L’s beleaguered Holy Church, its walls (and, ultimately, its penitential practices) vulnerable to outside attack. Chapters three and four examine walking and labor as powerful metaphors for lay devotion and the work of getting saved. In the context of the parish, the layperson’s spiritual progress is often figured as a kind of pedestrian journey, however halting and slow. The metaphorical association of walking with salvation received one of its most extended treatments in PPl, a poem framed and motivated by the motif. Chapter four looks at agricultural labor as a lexicon for exploring the collective and cooperative nature of medieval devotion, from penance to pastoral work, and argues that L invokes the language of agricultural bylaws as a means of exploring spiritual community on the half-acre. Although this is a book about how vernacular literature grapples with the idea of the parish, chapter five considers how a particular parish – All Saints, North Street, in York – used vernacular literature to imagine itself in the so-called Prick of Conscience Window. Beyond merely citing and illustrating the poem, the window adapts it for a parochial audience by interpolating it into the ritual life of the parish and making it a tool of parochial worship.